Judith Weisman is a retired surgeon whose long-standing concerns about local postal delivery have been heightened by the actions of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Joan Jenness mailed a check for her property taxes from her home in Bridgton to the town office on Aug. 3. Instead of the usual two days, she said, it took 11 days to get there.

JoAgnes Paquarella got a thank you note at her home in Cape Elizabeth on Aug. 17 – a full month after her friend in Cleveland said she mailed it. The envelope was postmarked July 17.

And Judith Weisman filled out and mailed medical forms on Aug. 4 that never arrived in Yarmouth. After three weeks, she asked for new forms so she could to try again.

“This is insane,” said Weisman, who lives in Gorham. “Now I have to wait for a new set of forms to arrive, fill them out again, and wait again for an appointment.”

And where are the personal documents she mailed Aug. 4?

“That’s a good question,” said Weisman, a retired surgeon. “And what else didn’t get delivered to me?”

Across Maine, postal customers are racking up examples of late or lost letters and packages as politically charged scrutiny of the U.S. Postal Service mounts amid a global pandemic and before a hotly contested presidential election.

Some are upset about recent operational changes made by a new postmaster general who is a major donor to President Trump’s campaigns; others see no problem at all. And many, including Weisman, have already requested absentee ballots and plan to hand-deliver them to their municipal offices to make sure their votes are counted.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, D-1st District, surveyed her constituents last week and found that 64 percent of 2,130 respondents had experienced mail delays or knew someone who had. And 89 percent were aware of the operational changes by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy.

Survey respondents described the USPS as “a vital part of daily life,” especially in rural areas, and shared worries about losing a service they rely on to deliver products to customers and receive necessary supplies, including prescriptions.

One constituent, who has ALS, told Pingree that a recent shipment of medication for muscle cramping and twitching took six days longer than usual. “It was an extraordinarily painful week!” the person wrote. Other constituents, who said they’re stuck in California because of the COVID-19 crisis, were unable to vote in Maine’s July 14 primary election because ballots mailed June 26 from York didn’t arrive until Aug. 6.

“People are very agitated and concerned about what they’ve heard and experienced, and about the chaos that’s been created just before a major election,” Pingree said. “Voting is fundamental to our democracy and we need to know our mail is safe.”

Pingree has co-sponsored a third attempt to provide $25 billion to shore up the USPS during the pandemic and the election. The legislation also would require the postal service to treat election mail as First Class mail and force DeJoy to reverse operational changes that he has merely halted, such as the removal of mail-sorting machines, including two in Scarborough.

The Democratic-controlled House passed the bill Aug. 21 and forwarded it to the Republican-controlled Senate, where the issue has gone unaddressed for months despite prodding from U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

MAIL CONCERNS VALIDATED

Concerns about the dependability of the postal service were validated in a First Class mail experiment conducted by staff members of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal in Augusta, Morning Sentinel in Waterville and Sun Journal in Lewiston.

Participants mailed a total of 69 letters on Aug. 19 and 20 to seven communities across southern and central Maine. From Buxton to South Portland, from South China to Turner, and so on. One set of letters was mailed from Hampton, New Hampshire.

To test the effectiveness of mailing ballots to your municipal office, six of the letters were sent across town by residents of Portland, South Portland, Buxton, Harpswell and Freeport.

Sixty-seven letters were delivered within two days, including the six cross-town letters. One letter mailed in Turner arrived in Freeport three days later. Another letter mailed in Turner hadn’t reached its South Portland destination 10 days later.

Mail can be late or go missing for a variety of reasons, said Mark Seitz, a letter carrier who is president of both National Association of Letter Carriers Local 92 in Portland and the Maine State Association of Letter Carriers.

Letters can get stuck together in a sorting machine or have the wrong address or ZIP code. If there’s a problem but no return address, they wind up in the dead letter office.

Seitz said he understands postal customers’ concerns, especially in light of recent problems under the Trump administration, but he said mail that is properly addressed and processed will be delivered on time.

“I wouldn’t have any concern about voting by mail,” Seitz said, adding that the number of ballots expected to be mailed prior to the November election “wouldn’t even come close to what we handle at Christmas.”

There are more than 150 million registered voters in the United States and the postal service processes about 500 million cards, letters and packages each Christmas season.

In Pingree’s survey last week, 55 percent of respondents said they had voted by mail in the past six months, and the same amount said they planned to vote by mail in the next six months.

READERS REPORT PROBLEMS

Press Herald/Sunday Telegram readers reported a variety of recent mail problems. Cable bills and mortgage payments that were delivered late or not at all. Frozen seafood that was shipped priority mail and was rotten when it arrived two days late.

A prized CD collection that was reported damaged en route to Idaho, then went missing altogether. Two books purchased from a Portland retailer that went to distribution centers in New Jersey and Massachusetts before being delivered in Westbrook.

But some Mainers are satisfied with the USPS.

“I get mail every day and it’s never stopped,” said Kirk Pond, a retired business executive who lives in Cape Elizabeth. “The postal service is no different than it ever was. These anecdotal stories aren’t evidence of anything.”

Pond said he has faith in DeJoy’s leadership and operational decisions, and he believes DeJoy’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee last week that he wasn’t trying to sabotage the election and that the postal service will be able to deliver ballots on time.

DeJoy’s testimony seemed to reverse an Aug. 14 warning issued to 46 states – including Maine – that the postal service couldn’t guarantee timely delivery of absentee ballots in the November election. The previous announcement ratcheted up claims by the president, who votes by mail, that the postal service is unreliable and vulnerable to voter fraud.

DeJoy is a North Carolina businessman who has given $1.2 million to Trump’s campaigns and has claimed to have, along with his wife, between $30.1 million and $75.3 million in assets in USPS competitors or contractors, The Washington Post reported.

DeJoy was elected postmaster general in May by the postal service’s board of governors, who are six men appointed by Trump. Four are Republicans, two are Democrats. The president can appoint as many as nine board members, with no more than five from the same political party. Two members resigned in May and June, following DeJoy’s appointment.

Robert Duncan, postal board chairman, told the House committee last week that DeJoy is the fifth postmaster general since 1971 to come from the private sector.

“Mr. DeJoy has decades of experience in improving and managing sophisticated logistics chains for Fortune 100 companies,” Duncan said. “As a major contractor to the U.S. Postal Service for more than 25 years, he has a deep knowledge about the institution and how it can be strengthened.”

That expectation has yet to be fulfilled. Postal customers and employees across the country have reported problems linked to eliminated overtime hours, the removal of hundreds of letter-sorting machines and delivery trucks being put on schedules that delayed mail delivery.

In Maine, more than 65,000 pieces of mail were delivered late after trucks failed to wait an extra 10 minutes for the mail to be sorted, union leaders said. And Maine farmers who regularly order live chicks through the postal service said many of the chicks they’ve ordered recently arrived dead.

Union leaders in Maine also said the postal service delayed First Class and Priority mail on three occasions in June and July in order to prioritize the delivery of Fourth Class Amazon packages. Carriers estimated that 1,500 to 2,000 First Class and Priority packages were delivered late each time this happened.

MAKE A VOTING PLAN

To address concerns about voting by mail, Pingree and other officials recommend making a voting plan well in advance of the Nov. 3 election. If you plan to vote absentee, for whatever reason, get your ballot early and return it early.

“Make a voting plan that’s right for you,” Pingree said. “Some people aren’t concerned. Some people want to vote in person on Election Day. Some people are concerned about a potential resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall and they want to limit their risk of exposure.”

Based on high early ballot requests through the state’s website, Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap has predicted that about 600,000 of Maine’s 1 million registered voters will vote absentee, up from 250,000 in 2016.

In South Portland, City Clerk Emily Scully is expecting 10,000 to 15,000 absentee ballots, up from 6,308 absentee ballots in 2016 (42 percent of voter turnout).

For voters who plan to vote by mail, Scully suggests sending ballots back at least seven days before the election to ensure they arrive on time, in keeping with USPS guidelines.

“If voters really want to avoid the mail entirely, they’re welcome to come in to vote absentee in person at City Hall or pick up a ballot for themselves or a member of their immediate family, starting when we get the ballots, around Oct. 3,” Scully said.

South Portland also plans to install a ballot drop box behind City Hall, like many municipalities across Maine. Voters may use the drop box or hand-deliver ballots to the clerk’s office.

If voters want to make sure their mailed ballots have been received and registered, they may call the clerk’s office to check, Scully said. Municipalities may begin counting absentee ballots seven days before the election.

Despite assurances that voting by mail can be secure and dependable, some Mainers say they aren’t willing to give the USPS the benefit of the doubt.

Joan Jenness, the Bridgton resident, said she doesn’t trust DeJoy and she fears her absentee ballot might go missing or be considered invalid for some reason if she mails it.

A retired teacher, Jenness has noticed that the postmark date on her mail is unreadable about 75 percent of the time. She figures hand-delivering her ballot is the best way to ensure her votes are counted. This election is too important to leave any doubt, she said.

“I’ll take it to the town office rather than wonder if it got there in time,” Jenness said.


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